Two months after leaving the church -- an update
It's been about two months since we left the church, and I wanted to write a blog entry, as this represents a significant milestone in our lives.
When I left, I decided to write out my exit narrative, which I published here: Why I left the Mormon Church. When I first wrote this narrative, it appeared that I would be the only one interested in the details. For the first few weeks, almost no one asked me why I left, but this is perhaps more expected, since Shannon comes from the Mormon family, not me. Since none of my family members are Mormon, they were supportive and could empathize with my decision. No one was looking for a detailed justification.
Shannon's family had different reactions. They wanted to better understand us and engage with us more (particularly her). She explained that she had been writing on her blog, Seagull Fountain, many posts during the past several years where she wrestled with the issues, and her most recent post, Choose your friend wisely, lays out her reasons again.
In her post, she mentioned that I had written my story/reasons out, and when others realized I'd written something, they were interested to read it. Now I've found that it's really convenient to have written my exit narrative, since I can just send people a link to an 8,000 word narrative that explains my thinking.
I think Shannon's family is getting more used to the idea of us having left. And so are we. Still, at least for me, it has been difficult to change a worldview that I've held for 23 years. What I miss most is the community. It's great having a community of friends, especially since, as a guy, I really don't have many close friends. In fact, other than people I know through my work, basketball, and blog, I don't have other friends that I hang out with. I've moved too many times to develop close friendships, and guys are less inclined to develop friendships, in general, with others.
Shannon has a lot more friends, both inside and outside the church. She still attends playgroup with other church members, and has other ladies-night-out type of activities (with both her feminist church friends and feminist non-church friends). I do still play basketball at the church, since the Tuesday night basketball is the best basketball in town. And, I admit, I'm still on the church basketball team (I couldn't resist). Avery and Callie still attend young women's and activity days at times.
However, I think that we will gradually let go of the community ties and these activities, though I'm not sure when.
One thing that has been difficult is that Avery still wants to attend Young Women's on Sundays (not any other meetings). Shannon wants to be supportive, and other church leaders have given Avery rides to the third hour. However, I'm less supportive. First, I think attending alone somewhat antagonizes Avery towards us. She probably gets the impression that we're lazy, or sinning, or unrighteous. Second, we can't monitor what kind of things she's learning. At least when we all attended as a family, we could comment on lessons, give context to talks and other teachings. We were there and could interpret and explain things.
But if she goes alone, and learns alone, how will she be able to come away with a more nuanced view of what she's learning?
Part of the problem is that what you learn as a youth is pretty basic. You learn good principles, such as honesty, service, kindness, morality, and so on. And you have lots of fun activities and interact with friends. The youth leaders are usually among the best and most energetic, fun, and firmly planted in the ward.
It's not until later that you get mired in more of the details. Still, many of the teachings at this age might seem subtle/benign, but they form ideas of what one can become. What is the ultimate goal for the young woman? Marriage in the temple is a constant theme.
Instead, we want our children to have more options available to them. What do they feel they can become? Hopefully they develop a deep belief that they can become whatever they want, such as a scientist, a doctor, a naturalist, a humanitarian worker, a politician -- anything. If they want to be stay-at-home mothers, that's fine too, but we don't want them to end up in a situation where it's too late to pursue something else, where doors are already closed, opportunities missed.
Avery says she wants to be a fiction writer. She is unaware, it seems, of the economic realities of this life and the likelihood of actually supporting herself through fiction writing. We encourage her, but I always try to suggest technical writing as a fallback. Apparently no one is interested in technical writing around here, as great a career as it is.
I too have felt a kind of liberation in leaving the church. It's kind of hard to explain. I can really be who I am, without trying to navigate life with ideas that don't make much sense to me. It was easier for me to leave the church because I already had an identity and sense of self without the church, since I didn't join until high school. I was still young, but by 16 I had mostly developed, I think, the personality that I have today. Sure we change from adolescence to adulthood, but it was still easier for me to recontextualize myself without the church.
One thing I like is that I no longer have to try to merge one conflicting worldview into another. There have always been things in the church that I didn't quite get, but which I accepted as part of the church package. For example, temple worship always seemed odd -- e.g., baptism for the dead, the endowment, genealogy work. All of this never appealed to me, and it certainly wasn't the central emblem of my membership in the church, as recent leaders have described the temple's role.
Another idea, and one that puts me at odds with many others, is the idea of Jesus as divine. Lots of people love Jesus as their savior. They weep when thinking about how he died on the cross for them. They are so grateful for his sacrifice and love. Personally, I never really made that connection or formed that relationship. He seemed like a great teacher and historical figure, but I could never relate to the outpouring closeness that others professed.
Additionally, I think I've been more open to science having left. I can learn about natural selection, cosmology, psychology, and other ideas without trying to make Mormonism fit harmoniously into the picture. I love science and sometimes regret having majored in English rather than astronomy, but mostly I have a survey-type love of science. Any book that goes too deeply into one specific subject area often becomes more detailed than I can absorb while listening to it through earbuds on my bike.
Abandoning the church's worldview has been challenging on a philosophical level as well. What do you replace it with? Existentialism? Athiesm? Another religion? Maybe an eastern philosophy? I'm not really sure. What do you do or think differently if you believe that ultimately all religions are man-made? I'm not sure. In some ways life is much easier when someone defines a worldview and life cosmology for you, with specific details on how you are to act, think, and live.
Overall, we still live our lives pretty much the same way. Except that now I sometimes play basketball on Sundays or we might go out on a family outing to a museum on Sundays. It is nice having more time, to not be burdened with callings or meetings or other responsibilities. I did volunteer to become a secretary in the STC, which is a local tech writer group. It's a small commitment that I somewhat took on as a means of finding community and a sense of belonging, knowing that I was distancing myself from the church.
Another thing I've realized is that, although Shannon and I decided to leave the church in a somewhat formal way -- letting our families know --we had been on this path for many years. The things we disagreed with had kind of been piling up. You can only sweep things under the rug so long before you can no longer walk on the rug. When you finally lift up the rug and toss it out, you realize that the rug had been losing its value with each new thing swept under it for a long time. In other words, one doesn't decide overnight just to discard a worldview, nor to adopt one either. It's a gradual process (at least for me) that is years in the making. I think we're still decompressing and changing, like the slow shifting of tectonic plates.
One thing that I've decided to do -- and much for therapeutic reasons as for artistic reasons -- is to revisit the missionary narrative I wrote at Columbia. I wrote the narrative while I was active in the church (in fact, I was missionary leader in the Harlem branch), and I think my perspective limited me from seeing and interpreting my experiences in a more balanced way. I was also fairly young, having only been back from the mission about 5 years.
In rereading it, there are parts that I really like, and other parts that I want to edit. Anytime you pick up something you wrote 10 years ago, you're going to see it for what it is, with many ideas for improvement and change. I'm wondering if I can now bring the right perspective to the experiences to deepen and balance the narrator's view in a way that will make the stories more appealing.
One challenge has been to define my audience. With my initial draft, I was never really sure who my audience was. Most active Mormons wouldn't bother reading someone else's missionary memoir unless the person were famous (a general authority), or unless it contained a lot of useful, practical tips.
Most non-Mormons would consider a memoir of a mission written by an active believer propaganda and wouldn't trust the narrator. But now I have the privilege of having both narrators -- the believing, committed perspective, and the perspective of one having left. I'm hoping that this balance will provide some of the true conflict and views that will make the prose more interesting.
About Tom Johnson
I'm a technical writer based in the California San Francisco Bay area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.